The Ricky Gervais Show

The Ricky Gervais Show debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Reviewing The Ricky Gervais Show almost requires that I review the show for two audiences: those who have listened to the podcasts the show utilizes as its source material and those that haven't. Basically, the series takes the audio of podcasts that comedian, actor and television impresario Gervais started recording with Stephen Merchant (his writing partner) and Karl Pilkington (his former radio producer) in 2005 and animates them. While the animation is quite well-done, it's hard to see what the appeal of this series will be for people who've heard the podcasts a number of times. But if you haven't heard the podcasts, you're going to get a nice laugh out of most of this. It's funny, funny stuff, and it accomplishes a tone that's not often seen on TV, that of a bunch of good friends just hanging out and making each other laugh.

Let's start with those who've never listened to the podcasts, who are probably going to get more out of this. The basic idea of the podcast was that Merchant, Gervais and Pilkington would answer listener questions, react to the news of the day and just generally riff on Pilkington's odd ideas about how the world works (or SHOULD work). The podcasts were far looser in nature than the TV episodes are, by a matter of necessity, and the TV episodes have been edited down to focus more on Pilkington, making Gervais and Merchant his sidekicks, rather than the other way around. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Pilkington makes for a fascinating figure. I highly doubt his idiot shtick is the real thing, but even if it isn't, he plays it so convincingly that I doubt you'll care.

The biggest thing to recommend this show to the non-listeners is the fact that it can be almost brutally funny. There are moments in tonight's premiere when Pilkington discusses his idea for a new way for babies to be born that are as funny as anything you'll see on TV, and there's a nice, loose quality to the way that Merchant and Gervais egg the guy on that somehow manages to keep from being mean-spirited and always stays on the right side of the line of friends giving each other shit. It's worth saying that if you enjoy these, it's almost better to track down the podcasts, since there's more of everything in them, but the TV show will provide a suitable stopgap for you if you're longing for a little more Gervais between The Invention of Lying and Cemetery Junction.

Now, for those of us who have listened to the podcasts, this really can't be seen as anything but a minor disappointment. It's not a bad show by any means, and it certainly reminds you of the fun of listening to the podcasts in the first place. But it never manages a crucial leap: It never gives a very good reason for it to exist. I suppose, ostensibly, the idea is that HBO gets to fill a half-hour timeslot and Gervais' show gets a wider audience, but I wouldn't be surprised if the number of downloads of the original podcasts actually outpaces the amount of viewers HBO can pull in at 9 p.m. on a Friday. To that end, it sometimes seems like the only reason this exists is because HBO wants to be in the Ricky Gervais business. After The Office and Extras, it's easy to see why. But it still doesn't make this feel at all essential.

There's also a bit of a problem with the fact that the series literalizes the content of the podcasts just a bit too much. The animation, in general, is very good, brightly colored and nicely paced, but it basically just turns what the guys are talking about into pictures. There might be a funny touch around the edges - like the facial expression of a monkey who longs to return to the moon - but for the most part, the animation seems to be there just to give people who've listened to the podcast something new to look at and to give HBO a reason to broadcast this instead of just sticking the audio files on its Web site somewhere.

The animation also has the weird effect of somehow making Pilkington less funny. When he's just a voice coming at you out of the headphones, it's easier to imagine him to be anything you'd like (even if you've seen a photo of Pilkington). When he's a little, round-headed animated man, it's harder to let go of him looking like that. This is the old complaint, I realize, of every fan of a book who's ever been miffed that the movie didn't match the movie they'd cast in their heads when reading the book, but I think it still is a valid one. Unlike that movie of a book, there's no hugely sweeping narrative or intricately drawn characters here that just demand the televisual treatment. It's just a collection of funny sketches that are a little less funny when the pictures are telling you exactly what to think about.

So is The Ricky Gervais Show worth it for those who've already listened to the podcasts? Probably, especially if you're a big Gervais fan. At the same time, it's a bit hard to not watch it and find yourself wishing that the guy were coming out with a new TV series, rather than reheated leftovers. I'll happily admit that I laughed a lot at the three episodes of The Ricky Gervais Show that I've seen. I'll also happily admit that I laughed a lot when I first listened to the audio tracks that made the show possible in the first place. Not every show has to justify its existence, but when you're as dependent on prior material as this series is, you've gotta come up with something other than funny cartoons to make the leap to another medium.

Grade for those who've never heard the podcast: B

Grade for those who've heard the podcast: C

Stray observations:

  • Watching this made me realize just how many HBO comedies are based on the idea of people who are fun to hang out with just hanging out and having a good time. Now, there's generally less gas in this concept than there is in a premise with a stronger comedic engine (look at how everyone seemingly realized how pointless Entourage was at the same time), but it can carry you a long way if you have funny enough people at the helm. I almost wish that Gervais, Merchant and Pilkington had gotten together and recorded entire new episodes to be animated, as I do enjoy hanging out with these guys, and I like the loose, rambling quality of the series.
  • Apparently, figuring out whether Pilkington is for real or not is something of a cottage industry in the UK.
  • My favorite of the episodes sent out was probably the third one, which I'd rate worth a look even if you've heard the podcasts. Tonight's premiere isn't awful either. Only the second episode (next week's) just simply doesn't work often enough to suggest its need to exist.

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